In mid-May, the House approved a $79.5 million addition to the administration’s budget request. Yesterday, the Senate, not to be outdone, voted $371 million — four and a half times more. The House Appropriations Committee has actually approved $411 million on Tuesday, but that hasn’t passed the full chamber yet.
Why does Stryker have such momentum? Some of our sources cynically pointed to General Dynamics’ lobbying operation, which is one of the defense industry’s most aggressive, even ruthless. GD publicly took on the Army over the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) contract when it felt the terms of competition were unfair, and it stealthily tried to get competitor Harris excluded from a critical radio competition.
But in this case the Army itself was leading the charge, with General Dynamics scrambling to keep up. It was the Army that asked the House to add the $80 million in the first place, and it was the Army that then revised its requested figure upwards to $411 million, forcing GD to hastily revise its briefing slides to catch up.
“Unlike in the case of AMPV, General Dynamics is basically doing the Army’s bidding on Stryker,” said Loren Thompson, a well-connected consultant and analyst at the Lexington Institute. “Its numbers match what the service thinks needs to be spent to improve Stryker firepower in Europe.”
That the often-lumbering Army is moving out fast indicates its whole-hearted commitment. “If the Army is ambivalent about something, it can take a long time,” Thompson told me. But when the Europe-based 2nd Cavalry Brigade submitted the original Operational Needs Statement for heavier weapons, he said, “Army headquarters turned the approval around quickly” — in about a month.
So what does the Army want so urgently?
What The Army Wants
In fact, the Army’s interest in an upgunned Stryker predates the war in Ukraine. An earlier attempt to equip a Stryker with a 105 mm tank cannon, the Mobile Gun System, crammed too much weapon in too little vehicle and was only purchased in small quantities. Many Stryker relatives in foreign armies have unmanned turrets with medium-caliber weapons, and General Dynamics had shown the Army a prototype of such an upgunned Stryker back in 2010.
But the service wasn’t really receptive until the hard-charging H.R. McMaster took over the Maneuver Center at Fort Benning and asked for a live-fire demonstration.GD was already test-firing a prototype in February 2014 — just before Putin’s “Little Green Men” took over Crimea at the end of that month — and had it shooting at Fort Benning in March. The 2nd Cavalry submitted its Operational Needs Statement a year later, this past March, and now the project is enshrined in the 2016 budget.
So what are we paying for, precisely? It’s a 30 mm quick-firing cannon, significantly heavier than even the famous 25 mm chaingun on the M2 Bradley, let alone the 12.7 mm machinegun most Strykers currently carry, but far short of a traditional tank main gun. (The prototype weapon was built by ATK and integrated by Kongsberg, but GD emphasizes it could install other vendors’ hardware just as easily). That’s enough to ravage troops in cover, buildings, and light vehicles, but not heavy tanks.
General Dynamics calls the gun mount a Medium Caliber Remote Weapons Station (MCRWS) — GD dislikes the term “turret” because it implies there are crewmen inside, which there aren’t: It’s remotely controlled from inside the vehicle. Containing only the gun and ammo, the system takes up less room than a manned turret, so the Stryker can still carry the same number of troops, which was a critical consideration for the Army, said Tim Reese, a GD spokesman (and a retired Army tanker himself).
Other than the not-technically-a-turret itself, the only necessary modification is to the top of the Stryker’s hull, though GD and the Army want to upgrade the vehicle’s suspension to better handle the additional weight. The upgunning should add about two tons to the basic 19-ton Stryker, Reese said. (The heaviest Stryker variants, with extensive uparmor kits and v-shaped hulls to resist roadside bombs, weigh 27.5 tons). The exact weight depends on how heavily armored the Army wants the gun mount to be: True, there are no humans inside to protect, but it’s still inconvenient to get your main gun shot off.
All told, it’s a modest modification, one that can be done to surplus Stryker vehicles current sitting partially disassembled at Anniston Army Depot in Alabama.
“Where the Army tends to go wrong is when it starts from scratch,” Thompson told me. Part of the problem, especially in times like these, is fiscal: New start programs cost much more than off-the-shelf technology. But another part of the problem is institutional indecision, he told me: “New starts take a long time and the Army tends to change its mind.” By contrast, when the Army goes for an incremental upgrade, like adding a 30 mm gun to the Stryker or modifying the M2 Bradley into an Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, he said, it tends to get good (if not revolutionary) results on a timeline and at a price it can afford.
But why bother upgunning the lightly armored Stryker when the Army already has much heavier war machines, the M1 Abrams tank and the M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle? Indeed, until recent years the Army had heavy brigades permanently based in Europe. Since the Crimean crisis, the Army has sent heavy units into Europe, but only on temporary “rotations.” Restoring the permanently based brigades would send a major signal that the Cold War was back — without necessarily being enough to shift the balance of forces against the heavily armored Red Army.
Let’s face facts, Thompson told me: “The Russians are the dominant military power in the theater.” For any move we make in Europe, they can easily make a counter-move: After all, their entire army is already there. So any steps we take have to tread a fine line, he said: “What we want to do is send a signal that we’re going to protect our allies but not provoke the Russians” — for example, by upgunning a Stryker unit already in Europe. Then the next step is deciding whether to invest in upgunning Strykers worldwide.